Most of the songs that we know and love in the distinguished country catalogue of Hank Williams were written by the man himself. But on 26 November 1949, he hit the chart with a song from well before World War II, and one that went on to be repeatedly covered, including a top ten pop version by Ricky Nelson and another recording by Louis Armstrong.
‘My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It’ is one of those traditional tunes that seems almost not to have one definitive writer. It was certainly around as ‘The Bucket’s Got…’ as early as 1927, and even then the melody had more than a ring of the one from a First World War favourite called ‘Long Lost Blues.’
But then in 1933, jazz pianist and composer Clarence Williams, who also wrote the Bessie Smith hit ‘Baby Won’t You Please Come Home’ among other songs, took out a copyright on ‘Bucket,’ and has been credited as the composer since then. Four years later, it was cut as ‘Bucket’s Got A Hole In It’ by the seminal blues musician Washboard Sam.
Williams is thought likely to have learned the song from a bluesman called Rufus Payne, known as ‘Tee Tot,’ who taught the young man blues guitar. Hank cut his version in Cincinnati in August 1949 at the same time as the song that was a humble b-side of the single release, but has since become one of his most famous numbers, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’
In those last weeks of 1949, there was what you might call a battle of the buckets, as Williams’ MGM recording went head-to-head with a rival version by Arkansas-born singer ‘T’ Texas Tyler. Hank won, reaching No. 2 on the country listings while Tyler peaked at No. 4.
Armstrong recorded his interpretation of ‘My Bucket’ soon afterwards, in 1950, and as the song continued to prove its versatility, rockabilly artist Sonny Burgess added his in 1957, on Sun Records, before teen idol Nelson turned it into a country top ten hit again in America, and pop No. 12, in 1958. It’s gone to attract countless other covers, from the Ramsey Lewis Trio to Bob Dylan and The Band, and from Van Morrison to Willie Nelson & Branford Marsalis.
Listen to ‘My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It’ on Hank Williams’ 40 Greatest Hits on Spotify